What is Reincarnation?

A Perspective on Reincarnation


As soon as you heard the word Reincarnation, I know many of you picture yourselves being reborn as a dog or a cow in the next life. This idea of reincarnation is such a huge misunderstanding that, for a long time, was put in people’s minds. Consequently, most people say reincarnation is just nonsense or a myth. According to the teachings of the Buddha, reincarnation is not being reborn as an animal, but a profound, powerful concept. So, what does Buddha mean by reincarnation? Many people have understood that reincarnation is the transmigration of a soul to another body after death. Some people, even some Buddhists, say that this is the Buddha’s teaching. In Buddhism, there is no such teaching, because one of the most fundamental doctrines in Buddhism is “anatta,” that means no soul or no-self. So, to understand what reincarnation is, we have to learn the truth about the “self.”

What is the self?

The Buddha has taught us that there is no permanent, distinctive the self or “me,” and what we think as our “self” is just an illusion. The person and everything bound with it (our personality, self-consciousness, ego, etc.) are created by the “skandhas.” The skandhas include our bodies, physical and emotional sensations, conceptualizations, ideas and beliefs, and consciousness. When all of these skandhas come to one place and work together, they create the illusion of the self. However, this does not imply the non-existence of us in the world. The idea of the self-being an illusion is that there is no permanent or unchanging me. We all have illusions of the self. We redefine these in every moment because of the changes in impermanent conditions. Since we do not realize this bitter truth, we always cling on to desires and pleasures that are generated by this illusion of permanent, unchanging self. Therefore, we go through suffering and dissatisfaction continuously. There is a teaching of the Buddha, which is called Three Marks of Existence. They are “anicca” (impermanence), “dukkha” (suffering), and “anatta” (egolessness). The Buddha taught that understanding these three marks of existence and eventually acceptance of the truth, will open the door to a world of free of suffering, that is called “nirvana,” or salvation.

What is reincarnation?

So, now you may wonder, if there is no permanent self, then what is reincarnation, and how does it happen? Based on the teachings of Buddhism, reincarnation is not a physical birth of a person. For example, if Anne dies, she will not be reborn as a cat or a parrot in her next life. But the energies that were within her transform into another form or shape, after dying of her physical body. That is called reborn in another life or reincarnation. These three stages of life: birth, decay, and death happen again and again, and it creates a cycle of rebirth which never ends or as Buddhists say “samsara.” Samsara or this cycle of rebirth is governed by “karma,” which is a Sanskrit word with the simple meaning of action.

What is karma?

In the basic sense, karma is action and reaction or cause and effect. According to Buddha’s teaching, any thought, word, or deed caused by desire, passion, hate, and illusion is karma. If we do something out of full compassion, then we get a good effect. If we do something filled with hatred, then we will get an adverse effect. Both of these are karma. However, karma is often misunderstood by many people as fate. Karma is not fate. In fate, people believe that some external force has decided our future, and we cannot change our destiny.

On the other hand, people can change their karma with actions, words, and thoughts. This idea of karma is not something that exists only in the religious world. In physical science, the third Newton law implies the same concept as in karma, which is for every action; there is a reaction. Since these karmas govern our cycle of rebirth, our next life is shaped based on our karma. As mentioned earlier, when a physical body dies, the energy within it does not die along with it. Instead, it will transform into another form or shape. 

The law of conservation of energy says that energy is impossible to destroy. It only can change into another form of energy. So, according to the Buddha, the shape or form that spiritual energy will take place in its next life is depended on its karma. Karma is very powerful. So powerful that the last thought in your mind at the death bed can decide your future life.

Teachings of the Buddha have defined ten realms of being, and they are as follows in the descending order of value.

  • Buddha (the enlightened one who defeated the cycle of rebirth) 
  • Bodhisattva (an enlightened one destined to be Buddha)
  • Pratyeka Buddha (a Buddha for himself)
  • Sravaka (a direct disciple of Buddha)
  • Heavenly beings
  • Human beings
  • Asura (fighting spirits)
  • Yaksha (beasts)
  • Preta (hungry ghosts),
  • Depraved men (hellish creatures) 

Although these ten realms seem to be individual, separate worlds, they are psychological states. These realms are mutually immanent and mutually inclusive, with each domain having all the others as well. For example, humans can go into high psychological states like Sravana, as well as low mind states like preta, based on what they do, think or say. 

Buddha has taught the doctrine of reincarnation differently according to the mental and spiritual capacity of people. For example, people who lived in the village at that time were not able to understand a great, profound doctrine. Therefore the Buddha taught them in the most simplified way. But, we who live in the modern world, should not take this literally. Instead, we must see, as taught by Buddha, the illusion as an illusion and reality as reality

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